The History Place - Personal Histories

From Hitler Youth to U.S. Air Force
by Hubert Schmidt

Section Eight of Ten

East-West Border Crossings

The political situation between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union worsened early in 1948. The Soviets tried to expand the Iron Curtain. The City of Berlin was an island within East Germany, and within this island the city was divided into a West sector and an East sector. No walls existed at this time. Travel between East Germany and Berlin, and travel between the West and East sectors was still unrestricted. However, the East German police became very vigilant in stopping material, especially food products, from crossing over the East Germany-Berlin border. They erected control points at every railroad station and major highways entering Berlin. Hence, my trips to obtain food from East Germany became stifled. I had to find another way to supplement our food supply or make enough money to buy food on the black market.

An acquaintance suggested I travel to West Germany on the Interzonal train. When I mentioned that I would not be qualified to obtain a travel pass, he said, "Go without it." He explained in detail what I had to do. It would be a little risky, but feasible. First I needed some money. So I had to explain this adventure to my mother, mentioning only the easy parts. My informer also gave me information on prices in West Germany. The potential profit margin could be very attractive. I suggested the plot to my mother, indicating that I might bring back 200 herrings in salt brine. She had just bought two herrings and paid 8 marks each. I said they sold herrings in Hamburg, a port city, for 1 mark each. It would take me two days and I needed about 400 marks. She handed me 500 marks and said, "Just do it right and do not get caught."

Slightly dilapidated Interzonal Pass.Some clarification about identification papers and travel passes would be in order here. Every person in Germany had a passport with their name, address, age, sex, and an identification number. The governing authority issued travel passes upon request. To request the travel pass, called a Single round-trip Interzonal Pass, required listing the purpose of the trip. The travel pass also had a space to record an identification number, which corresponded with the person's passport number. After one round-trip the pass was obsolete. One important fact to note, none of the passes had an I.D. picture. To obtain a ticket for the Interzonal train required only the showing of a valid travel pass at the ticket counter.

First, I had to figure out how to transport 200 salt herrings and bring them home. I found four large rectangular cans that had once contained American dried potato. They were roomy enough to hold 50 herrings each if packed like sardines. With my soldering iron, I planned to secure the round lid, creating a leak-proof seal. I packed the four cans, two in a large suitcase, and the other two wrapped in a tarpaulin, secured with rope.

All I had to do was to get onto the train without a ticket, convince the conductor that I had lost my ticket, and then pass through the border checkpoint without a travel pass while avoiding any luggage inspection. Could I really do all of this and not get caught?

Naturally, it required a little research. The train left every day at 7 a.m. and it would stop only at the border. Everybody then had to exit the train. Once the train was vacated, soldiers walked through the train, checking even the restrooms. When they were satisfied that the train was empty, the train would pull forward, until it was past the check-point building. Then, opening one train door at a time, a Russian soldier checked each travel pass for the correct clearance stamp.

To get this clearance stamp, everyone had to enter a control building, single file, carrying their suitcases and present the travel pass to a Russian soldier who would stamp it. Inspection of suitcases for contraband was expected. Once this procedure was finished, everyone could board the train again.

The next stop after the border control would be Hannover, West Germany. From Hannover, I would have to take a train to Hamburg. For the return trip, the whole process would be in reverse order. If I had a travel pass, it would receive the second and final clearance stamp. The travel pass would then be obsolete. That naturally assumed I had a travel pass in the first place.

When I think about it now, over 50 years later, I can not believe that I actually tried this. However, I was 20 years old at the time and invincible.

The morning of my trip, I arrived at the railroad station, or better near the railroad station. A small picket fence separated the street from the tracks and station. I stood there and waited until the Interzonal train pulled into the station. When I saw people entering the platform, I was ready to act. Since the platform was on the far side of the train, I could walk across the tracks and enter the train unseen. The compartment was still empty and I stowed my luggage in the overhead rack. The train filled quickly. I felt more comfortable standing in the isle, so I vacated my seat. The train started out right on time. Before long, the conductor came through checking tickets.

When he got to me, I told him the sad story about my father taking me to the station and his forgetfulness in actually giving me the tickets. I do not know if he bought it, but he said, "You just have to buy a new ticket." I told him that Hamburg was my destination and I paid him the required amount. He never asked for my travel pass which I did not have. Now I had to solve the next problem. Once we arrived at the border, leaving the train would be no problem, but getting back on again was more difficult, especially without a travel pass.

I ambled through the train until I found two gentlemen who seemed to know each other. I approached them and then told them my sad story. My grandmother was on her deathbed and the authorities had not given me a travel pass in time. I soon had their sympathy and I asked if they would help me get across the border. I told them it was very easy. All they had to do was to proceed normally through the control point and get the required stamp on their travel passes and then enter the train, showing the Russian soldier the document. I continued with my instructions, "Once on the train, one of you leaves the train with both of your passes. Hand me one and we enter the train again."

They were game. At the border station, called Helmstedt-Marienborn, everybody had to vacate. The train pulled forward, my two partners in crime boarded the train after proceeding through the control building. In the meantime, I meandered inconspicuously, carrying my two pieces of luggage past the control building. I stopped near the train door through which my fellow travelers had disappeared. I was not sure if they would get cold feet and I carefully thought about alternatives. However, everything proceeded as planned. One fellow exited and handed me the other fellow's validated travel pass and I was on the train again. I thanked the two guys. So far so good.

While walking up and down the train corridor, I met a young lady. We talked a little and exchanged pleasantries, and she mentioned the reason for her travel. She lived in Wiesbaden, a West German town, but had to visit her sick father in Berlin. She told me that she had planned this trip two months earlier. She had the travel pass already, but had to cancel, and had applied for a new one. "So you are traveling on your new pass now?" I asked. She nodded in the affirmative. "Do you still have your unused travel pass?" I asked. "Yes, I've got it right here." She pulled it from her purse. I held my hand out and she passed it to me. I looked it over and said, "Christel, do you think you can let me keep this pass to remember you by?" "Why not?" was her answer.

How lucky can one get? I now had a clean, unused travel pass, unused and crisp but not without potential trouble. The information on the pass was not only outdated but also had no resemblance to Hubertus Schmidt, a 20-year-old male traveler.

At Hamburg, I found my fish contact. He then made contact with a wholesaler. They delivered 200 herrings for half-a-mark each. The price was even better than I expected. I soldered the lids onto the cans. My contact solicited two fellows who would help me get the load to the train station. It would cost me a pack of cigarettes each and they would bring the two containers, each holding two cans, to the train station merchandise check-in counter. That evening, I inspected my newfound travel pass. Without any forgery equipment, I decided to make only one little change at this time. I changed the typed name "Christel" to "Christof."

The next morning, we proceeded to the station entrance and I asked my two helpers to wait for my orders. I took my phony travel pass, stepped up to the ticket counter and said, "Ticket to Berlin please." The person behind the counter did not even look at the travel pass and handed me the ticket. I paid for the ticket and returned to my helpers. At the freight check-in counter, I showed my ticket and presented my two containers. While holding a pack of cigarettes, I asked the man behind the counter, "Could you make sure that these packages proceed right now to the baggage car?" "No problem," was his answer after I handed him the cigarettes. This was a precaution in case the police got nosy and checked the baggage cart. The cigarettes, by the way, were real inexpensive German stogies.

The train ride was uneventful from Hamburg to Hannover. Since I had checked my luggage in Hamburg, I proceeded directly to the platform awaiting the arrival of the Interzonal train. I now had to make a decision about what to do at the border. I casually approached several persons on the platform about how frequently they traveled on this train. Once I found a seasoned traveler, I quizzed him about the proceedings at the border checkpoint. I found out that they were very lax at the checkpoint, barely looked at the travel pass and routinely just stamped the document. I decided that I would go through the checkpoint and get my stamp. Having the first stamp in the travel pass indicated that I had crossed the border once. This provided the perfect setup for not having to go through the checkpoint again on any future trip, if there ever was a future trip.

At the border, I stood in line with everybody. When it was my turn, I laid my travel pass down. The Russian opened it, stamped it, and pushed the pass to an East German policeman who entered the date next to the stamp. They handed me back the pass. I proceeded to the train, proudly showing the Russian soldier my stamped travel pass. He waved me onto the train without hesitation. 'Christof' was on the train.

In West Berlin, the streetcar took me home. My mother was quite delighted. We had salt herrings with green beans for dinner for a few days, until she had sold almost all the fish for five marks each to a grocery store. My reward was the leftover money from the original 500 marks.

On the way home from this trip, I had befriended a stranger who mentioned that his father had a farm outside Hannover. He told me that he needed a couple of radios and that he could give me rolled oats for it. He gave me the address of his father's farm.

My mother, upon hearing this story, suggested that she could use the rolled oats. She promised that she would not sell the oats, but only feed them to us. My sister had a nice radio, but she would not part with it. I went to the black market and obtained a couple of cheap good-looking large radios. I paid 100 marks for them.

In the meantime, I modified the travel pass slightly. I carefully erased the date notation next to the official stamp and changed the expiration dates. Now I was all set for my next trip. I packed the two radios into two large suitcases. Using my phony pass, I bought a ticket at the counter without telling any sad stories this time. At the border, I just waited near the control building, until the first passengers boarded the train again. Walking past the control building, I joined the boarding travelers. As I got to the Russian soldier at the train door, I showed him my pass. I had added today's date. Even so, I did not think he would even look at that. But when the soldier looked at the pass, he pointed to my suitcases, then pointed to the pass, and said, "Nix good." I said, "Yes good." But he said not, and so we went on with this a few more times until I acted annoyed, pushing the suitcases practically into his face. He finally said, "Go," and waved me onto the train. I had no idea what his problem was. As I settled down in the compartment, I asked a lady who had two suitcases if I could see her pass. And there it was. In the upper corner in red pencil, I saw "KK," indicating two suitcases had been inspected. The "K" represented Koffer, the German word for suitcase. I now knew that I would have to increase my forgery paraphernalia by buying different color pencils. I already had whitener, ink, pen, eraser, razor blade, and candle wax. The wax I applied to the area on the pass used for the date entry. Naturally, I had entered the date myself. I used the razor to scrape the old date off, in order to keep the damage to a minimum.

In Hannover, I left the Interzonal train and found the farmer who wanted the radios. He was satisfied and he helped me to divide and pack 100 lbs. of rolled oats into my extra large suitcases. My return trip to Berlin had no surprises, and Mother was delighted with the rolled oats.

But not all of my border-crossings progressed as expected. Some were outright ticklish.

In his job as postal inspector, my sister's husband transferred to Cologne, West Germany. The new assignment included a promotion for him. Considering the situation in Berlin, it appeared to be a good opportunity. My sister and her children remained in Berlin until suitable housing in Cologne became available. Two months passed. My sister knew I had crossed the border easily several times. She asked me if I could take her along on my next trip, so that she could visit her husband. I thought about it for a moment, and explained the danger. Apparently, she trusted my judgment and wanted to go desperately.

I had planned to travel to Hannover, to the farmer with the rolled oats, and take along 3,000 cigarettes. He had promised me 30 lbs. of smoked ham for the cigarettes. He wanted French cigarettes, an advantage for me, since we lived in the French sector. French cigarettes were the least favorite brand on the black market. Their strong flavor held the price down compared to American or British cigarettes. I found a good source that would sell me 15 cartons of French cigarettes for 40 marks per carton. One pound of smoked ham sold for 200 marks. One pound of sugar carried a 300 mark price. An American cigarette was down from a high of 10 marks to five marks each.

I obtained the French cigarettes and packed them into a suitcase big enough for 30 lbs. of smoked ham which I hoped to bring back home. My sister got quite excited, not only about seeing her husband, but also about the unknown border crossing. I told her she could take only one suitcase, since I had only one suitcase. Otherwise, my notation on the travel pass would have a conflict, and I did not want to ask for problems.

The day arrived. We proceeded to the railroad station and I bought two tickets for the Interzonal train. I purchased one ticket at the Hannover window for me. At another ticket window, I bought a ticket to Cologne for my sister. Both times, I showed my phony travel pass as proof that I had authority to use the Interzonal train. We boarded the train and we were on our way to new adventures. I told my sister the routine for getting across the border. I let her know that I would pass through the control and inspection building to get a new and second stamp on my phony travel pass.

However, I would not take a suitcase into the building with me. She would have to stand in the line leading to the control-building, stalling long enough so that she would be the last in line, while I would try to get into the building beforehand. After I passed through the building, I would backtrack to her, remove her from the line as unassuming as I could. After that, we both would slowly meander to the train and wait until a Russian soldier opened an empty car. Then I would ask her to wait for a moment with my suitcase, while I would stop someone who had gone through the control, asking for his or her travel pass. I had to look for the "K," for suitcase, since I would not have a suitcase with me. I needed to know what color and where on the travel pass they had placed the "K." I would then make the proper notation on my phony travel pass.

She would have to show the pass to the Russian soldier at the train and board the train. As quickly as possible, she would then come to a train window, lower it and I would hand her a small bag while she would slip me the travel pass. I would then join her using the same pass she had just used.

When the train arrived at the border station everything went like clockwork. I got in line without a suitcase, but took along a small bag. She was to wait until I came to her, even if she had to get out of line. Under no circumstance was she to enter the building. Once I was in the building, the line got very orderly. The line inside the building was about 10 to 12 persons. I had my travel pass ready and looked around. Two Russian officers were standing at one wall, talking and smoking. It appeared that the Russian soldier at the inspection table looked at and approved solely the travel pass. However, just then, when only four ladies were still in front of me, the Russian asked for the lady's passport. As coincidence would have it, the I.D. number in the passport did not match the I.D. number listed on her travel pass.

My travel pass would not match my passport book number, even better yet, nothing on my travel pass matched with my passport. Fortunately, the troubled lady accidentally had her husband's travel pass. She called for George, who was standing a little behind us in the line and the Russian compared every number. Satisfied with the result, he passed them both through.

Now, after this little episode, the soldier had the strange idea to continue asking for passports, appearing to have fun doing it. The three persons in front of me were ladies. When the next lady got to the Russian, he asked her for her passport. She opened her purse, got her passport book and laid it on the table. He opened the passport book and the travel pass and then compared the numbers. When the numbers matched, he stamped the travel pass.

I hoped this was the end of his asking for passports. I considered turning around to leave the building but the officers were still standing at the wall. "Passport," he asked the next lady. She opened her purse and laid the passport book down for him to open. After checking, he passed her through. Now only one lady was in front of me. She laid down her travel pass. He unfolded it, fumbling a little, then asked for her passport. I was dead, I thought. She provided me with a little grace time, hunting for her passport in her large purse, before I ended up in prison, or so I thought. Not to mention the fate my sister Waltraud could expect stranded here at the border.

Again, the Russian soldier opened the passport and the travel pass and compared numbers. Then I had a flash. I took my passport book, opened it, then opened the travel pass. As soon as the lady in front of me moved along, I laid both my opened passport and travel pass right under the Russian's nose. All he had to do was compare and I would soon be in jail. However, I had the right hunch. He did not even look at it. He stamped my travel pass, the guy beside him put the date down, and I was out of there. I picked up my sister and we proceeded on as planned.

I selected a middle-aged lady with one suitcase as she exited the control building and asked to see her travel pass. A short glance and I thanked her. I noticed a green "K" on the upper right corner of her travel pass. I fixed our pass with the green "K" and soon we were on our way. I never told my sister how close we came to trouble. Her plans were to stay with her husband for a while. He would apply for a legitimate travel pass to get her back to Berlin.

Upon arrival in Hannover, I departed the train with my 3,000 French cigarettes. But after going down the stairs from the platform, it appeared we had a slowdown at the exit gate. I heard the police were checking suitcases for contraband. My cigarettes certainly qualified. Immediately, I turned around and went back to the platform. The Interzonal train had now left the station, but some people were still on the platform. Apparently another train was expected. I walked to one end of the platform, thinking I might be able to jump off the platform and run across the tracks. My thought about running came quickly to an end. Two policemen were coming onto the platform, each with a German shepherd dog. I could see them inspecting suitcases.

There I was, in trouble again. I had one choice, simply abandon the suitcase and walk away. Just then, an unbelievable coincidence. An empty train entered the station, moving at a nice pace. I stood at the end of the platform. When the engine passed me, I knew this train would not be stopping at this station. The other coincidence was an open door. The moving train actually had two open doors, dangerously so; it could whack someone. I stood next to my suitcase and moved nearer to the edge of the platform. I kept an eye on the open doors, which were approaching rapidly. A quick glance at the police, then, the moment the door was close I picked up my suitcase, swung it and threw it into the train. Then a quick sprint and I hoped in for a ride. I closed the door and bent down to hide. As long as the train moved, I hid, but then it stopped. I looked out and saw a picket fence not too far away. I grabbed my suitcase and jumped off, then ran to the picket fence, climbed over it, and disappeared amid the streets of Hannover with my 3,000 cigarettes. Was I lucky, or what?

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